What Happens When Africa's Largest Lake Runs Out of Fish?

The fishermen who rely on Lake Victoria's once-abundant perch population for their livelihood know they are living on borrowed time.

As soon as a boat lands on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kasensero, Uganda, the town’s fishmongers are leaping over the gunwales with fists full of cash. They grab the meatiest catches first and slap the smaller ones on a 20-inch long wooden block, their tails carefully smoothed to stretch out their length. If the smaller fish make the cut, they are auctioned immediately. If not, the fishermen call Paluku Thophile and his wife, Katungu Mwasimuke.

The processing factories that send fillets and cans abroad won’t accept small fish—they’re illegally immature and have little meat between their bones anyways—but Paluku and Katungu have a connection to other buyers who are less particular.

Seven years ago, the family was forced to flee from the seemingly endless stream of conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, hopping the border from their home near Virunga National Park into eastern Uganda. At first, they struggled to settle in Kampala, the chaotic capital, and then on the Ssesse Islands in the middle of Lake Victoria, but they could not build roots as outsiders. Finally, they found Kasensero, a rough and tumble trading town that has welcomed the gregarious couple along with anyone else who shares the dream of getting rich.

“I ran away from the war back home,” says Paluku speaking in excited bursts French, “here I can support my kids who study here and in Congo. It’s not easy. But I don’t have a choice. I don’t have other means.”

Paluku and Katungu collect the illegally small fish, salt them and smuggle them back to friends and family in Congo where a generation of unrest has allowed fishermen to quietly empty the lakes there almost entirely. The illicit trade brings enough money to provide for all twelve children and pads the pockets of the important officials along the way.

In Luganda, the most popular of Uganda’s many tribal languages, kasensero means “to penetrate,” and the town is infamous throughout the country as the place to make and immediately spend a fortune. Wages are paid in cash up front every morning for every fish landed, and the bars spill over every night with prostitutes and men with money to burn. This has generated an HIV infection rate variously estimated between 38.5 and 70 percent, but the causal lawlessness has also allowed the fishing business to thrive.

Fish are the second-largest export from Uganda after coffee, bringing $125 million in foreign currency into the country annually. The biggest haul are perch, which are primarily sent to Europe, where they’re sold alongside cod.

This booming fish business stands out in a nation that once relied on foreign aid for more than 25 percent of its budget. Kasensero’s vibrant main street, lined with shops and restaurants, is an anomaly surrounded by countryside where some three quarters of the people are engaged in subsistence agriculture.

But it wasn’t always this way.

The British introduced the Nile perch into Lake Victoria starting in the early 1900s, hoping the carnivores would eat the little local cichlids and grow into valuable white fish. The perch population spiked in the 1980s, drawing thousands to the shore in the hunt for wealth.

When Kayumba John landed in Kasensero after fleeing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the town was just a collection of thatched huts at the end of a long trail through the forest and brush. But Kayumba could send a boat out for an afternoon and expect to fill it completely with perch, some growing over 400 pounds, in a few hours.

As a road connected Kasensero to bigger towns, cities and the global market, Kayumba became a wealthy man, supporting a family that has grown to more than 30 children between his own, those of his late brother and several orphans adopted along the way. Kayumba is a kindly man, known for generosity as broad as his belly. He named his fishing company Besiga Mukama—“those who believe in God”—in thanks.

“There is no other profitable activity like fishing,” says Kayumba John, now a leader in Kasensero, “in fact, it is us fishermen who have educated our children in good schools alongside those politicians and well-off people.”

But recently, his streak of good luck seems to be running out. When I first went to Kasensero in 2013 for a project about AIDS, Kayumba pulled me aside and told me that I had to focus on a bigger problem: the fish were disappearing.

Since its peak around 2004, the perch population has dropped by nearly half, with fishermen swarming the waves and pulling out too many fish. The average perch size has collapsed so that less than 1 percent of fish are sexually mature and above the legal limit of 20 inches in length. When I went fishing with one of Kayumba’s boats last year, we pulled in eight fish, none weighing more than 30 pounds, a pithy pile pulled in by a shivering crew who had only heard stories of days of better fishing.

Scarcity of perch in Lake Victoria has driven their price up, somewhat stabilizing the industry, but the business has grown riskier for every person involved. Since the fish populations closest to shore were depleted, fishermen have started venturing deeper and deeper into Lake Victoria.

So, the cost is higher—bigger boats, longer nets, more fuel in the tank—and the odds of catching fish are lower. Shrinking margins have drawn down Kayumba’s capital, forcing him to reduce his fleet from a peak of 30 boats to fewer than ten.

At the same time, longer journeys expose the fishing crews to ever greater threat to life and limb as they chance the world’s second largest lake in open hulled boats. Storms can whip up huge waves almost instantly, swamping and crushing the wooden vessels. Few fishermen know how to swim, and the rule on the lakeaccording to Kayumba is, “if you flip, you die.”

Those added risks and the constant pressure to provide for families has pushed many into increasingly unsustainable practices.

Small-gauge, “indiscriminate nets,” targeting illegally small fish, have become common as the trade with Congo has become established. Teams of men are hired to brazenly pull long strings straight into the shore next to town, hauling in everything in their path.

“You pay a little money and catch whatever fish you want,” says Paluku Thophile. He and his wife Katungu know that their lucrative shipments of dried fish to Congo can’t last forever, but they hope it will last long enough to put their children through school. “You watch,” he says,” Lake Victoria, like Lake Tanganyika [in Congo], will be empty because no one cares.”

Scientists at the National Fisheries Resource Research Institute in Jinja, Uganda, do care, and they are trying to take a proactive approach. They have been honing methods to farm Nile perch in cages in the lake. They’ve identified Kasensero as a potential site, as the cages can be anchored at the mouth of the nearby Kagera River.

But the fishermen in Kasensero are worried that cages will put too much wealth in the hands of those who can afford to own them. They argue that fish that swim free in Lake Victoria are a public resource that anyone can chase if they choose to brave the waters.

Instead of cages, many would prefer to see the central government crack down on bureaucratic corruption. If the fishermen were confident that there was institutional support to combat illegal fishing, they would be happy to reinvest in the fishery’s future.

That has so far not be a priority for President Yoweri Museveni’s regime, in office since 1986, so the energy for change may have to come from elsewhere.

Europe is the largest buyer of fish from Lake Victoria, consuming around 80 percent of the catch, and there is a precedent for EU intervention to improve the fishery. In 1997, they called for higher sanitation standards, banning the fish until their demands were met. Within three years, new processing and handling facilities had been constructed around the lake.

A similar strategy could be implemented again to support the fishermen, but so far the crisis in Lake Victoria has gone largely unnoticed abroad. Nile perch represent only a tiny fraction of the total global white fish market.

So, fishing simply continues, with waves and boats washing in and out of Kasensero. Week by week, perch by sack of perch, as men pass the time, grind through routines and chase big fish, the life is quietly drawn out of Lake Victoria.

Paluku and Katungu have started renting extra houses to accommodate their growing business in salted fish, but the waves are lapping at the walls of their little thatch compound. They can only hope that the rebels back home in Congo run out before the fish in Uganda or they will have to flee again.

Alec Jacobson is a photojournalist and a National Geographic Young Explorer who has worked on three continents. You can find more about his work on his website: www.alecjacobsonphoto.com.

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